Tensions in the Mideast ratcheted up on September 3 following a joint US/Israel joint missile test and news on the same day that House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) signaled that they would approve an American military strike on Syria for its alleged use of deadly toxic gas on its own citizens on August 21. President Barack Obama has promised a “narrow” and “limited” military response to the use of chemical weapons but would stop short of regime change in Syria. "What we are envisioning is something limited. It is something proportional," the president said."At the same time we have a broader strategy that will allow us to upgrade the capabilities of the opposition."
Some of Syria’s chemical weapons are hidden underground, while some is stored on the surface and clearly visible in satellite images. A strike on the weapons facilities themselves, analysts fear, could thus expose toxic substances such as sarin to the air and kill innocent civilians.
While expressing support for Obama’s call for action in Syria, Boehner said that only the U.S. has the capacity to stop Syrian President Bashr Al-Assad. He his colleagues in Congress to follow suit. As for Cantor, who leads the Republican majority in the House of Representatives, he also supports Obama. He said, "Assad's Syria, a state sponsor of terrorism, is the epitome of a rogue state, and it has long posed a direct threat to American interests and to our partners."
Nancy Pelosi of California, who leads House Democrats, said she did not believe Congress would reject a resolution calling for force.
The USS Nimitz, an aircraft carrier, and its escort vessels are in the region and awaiting President Barack Obama’s orders to launch an attack on Syria. On August 31, Obama was flanked by Vice President Joseph Biden when he announced that he had made the decision to launch an attack on Syria but would await a decision from Congress.
On September 2, Syrian President Bashr Al-Assad warned that any military strike against his country would cause an uncontrollable regional war and spread “chaos and extremism.” In an interview with Le Figaro, Assad said Syria has challenged the U.S. and France to provide proof to support their allegations, but that their leaders “have been incapable of doing that, including before their own peoples.” He added, “If the Americans, the French or the British had a shred of proof, they would have shown it beginning on the first day.” The Syrian president ridiculed Obama as “weak” for having buckled to U.S. domestic political pressure. “We believe that a strong man is one who prevents war, not one who inflames it,” Assad said. “Everyone will lose control of the situation … Chaos and extremism will spread. The risk of a regional war exists,” warned Assad. On September 3, he added that “The Mideast is a powder keg and the fire is approaching.”
The U.S. has said it has proof that the Assad government killed at least 1,429 people, including more than 400 children, with a gas attack on August 21. Those numbers are significantly higher than the death toll of 355 provided by Doctors Without Borders. Those killed in the gas attack are among the more than 100,000 people killed throughout the two-year civil war.
Last week, the British parliament refused to confirm Prime Minister David Cameron’s request to put the UK on a war footing. However, a second vote remains possible as the U.S. steps up efforts to garner international support. Japan has also been contacted by the Obama administration, while Canada and Germany have already counted themselves out. The Arab League has called on UN to punish the regime for its “'heinous” chemical attack. However, the League stopped short of actually endorsing military action against Syria, a fellow Muslim-majority state. In an emergency meeting on September 1, the 22-state League urged the U.N. and the world to take “deterrent” measures to stop the Syrian regime’s crimes. Russia or China would likely veto any U.N. Security Council resolution sanctioning a Western strike against Syria. So far, the U.S. has gained the support of one country: France.
From Down-Under, Australia and New Zealand heard out Secretary of State John Kerry’s plea for support in calls to their respective foreign ministers. Australia is offering moral support for a military strike on Syria while New Zealand says it needs more information.
French Prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault France met with ministers of the French congress and briefed them on the situation on September 2. Ayrault said France is “determined to take action against the use of chemical weapons by the regime of Bashar Assad, and to dissuade it from doing so again,” after hosting French lawmakers at a Parisian hotel. “This act cannot go without a response.”
France has published a nine-page intelligence report prepared by the French DGSE spy agency and DRM military intelligence unit that concluded Assad’s regime had indeed launched the gas attack that involved a “massive use of chemical agents,” and could carry out similar strikes in the future. The French report, however, provided little new evidence beyond what the U.S. provided over the August 31-September 1 weekend. The evidence provided by the French included the already widely distributed amateur video showing victims. In Le Figaro, Assad said “all the accusations are based on allegations of the terrorists and on arbitrary videos posted on the Internet.”
The French intelligence assessment said it was “very unlikely” that Syria’s opposition had falsified images of suffering children that turned up online. It also said intelligence indicated the opposition “does not have the means to conduct such a large attack with chemical agents.” According to the report, before the attack, Assad’s government feared a possible strike on Damascus by the rebels. “Our evaluation is that the regime was looking to loosen the vice and secure the strategic sites for the control of the capital,” the report said.
French President Francois Hollande, was “continuing his work of persuasion to bring together a coalition,” Ayrault said. The French parliament is due to take a vote on September 4, even while it is not required for President Hollande to act on his own.
Syria’s staunch ally Russia has brushed aside Western evidence of an alleged Syrian regime role in the attack. “What our American, British and French partners showed us in the past and have showed just recently is absolutely unconvincing,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on September 2. “And when you ask for more detailed proof they say all of this is classified, so we cannot show this to you.” He added, “There was nothing specific there, no geographic coordinates, no names, no proof that the tests were carried out by the professionals.” Russian President Vladimir Putin has proposed to send a delegation of Russian legislators to Washington to discuss Syria with members of Congress.
Speaking of the political maneuvering by the White House in the Congress, BBC analyst Mark Mardell said “However much Republicans dislike the president, they do not want to leave the US in a position where so many have already argued it would be weakened in the eyes of the world.”
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel made an appearance in the Senate on September 3 to explain the Obama administration’s reasoning. “If Assad is prepared to use chemical weapons against his own people, we have to be concerned that terrorist groups like Hezbollah, which has forces in Syria supporting the Assad regime, would acquire them and would use them. That risk of chemical weapons proliferation poses a direct threat to our friends and partners and to U.S. personnel in the region.”
Secretary of State Kerry, who was a fervent anti-war activist in the 1960s, told a Foreign Relations Committee hearing in the Senate, “Iran is hoping you look the other way,…Hezbollah is hoping that isolationism will prevail. North Korea is hoping that ambivalence carries the day.” He added, “This is not the time for armchair isolationism. This is not the time to be spectators to slaughter."
Kerry appeared to suggest that U.S. troops might be deployed in Syria in support of U.S. trained insurgents arrayed against Assad. Kerry said “I don’t want to take off the table an option that might or might not be available to the president that might secure our country,” in speaking about a hypothetical situation in which the U.S. would send troops to secure chemical weapons caches. Seeking to clarify, the top diplomat said that Obama will accept whatever restrictions Congress wants to place to ensure that the U.S. military will not be drawn into combat between the regime and the rebels. “There will not be American troops on the ground with respect to the civil war,” Kerry said.